Book Review: Aurochs and Auks

aurochs and auks

“we speak, but we rarely listen; we tell cautionary tales, but we go on making the same mistakes; we state the obvious daily, yet we never act on what we say we know”

Aurochs and Auks, by John Burnside, is a collection of four essays that ponder man’s place in the world alongside his culpability in the extinction of species. Whilst it may be depressing to consider how foolish and damaging our behaviour too often is, the undercurrent in this writing is one of hope for what still thrives among ruins, and will do so when we are gone. The author may grieve for the damage wreaked by our self-destructive habits but can also look out in wonder at the here and now.

The opening essay, Aurochs, explores story telling across the ages and how this enables ‘the most radical alternative to authorised history’. The titular animals preceded domesticated cattle and survived in lands where man had not yet decreed that places could be enclosed and owned by an elite. Farming turned animals into commodities, killed for profit rather than as needed for a hunter’s sustenance. By changing natural habitats – building on wilderness, felling forests, over fishing oceans – a long trail of extinctions followed. The author posits that many so called civilisations have lost connection with the liminal spaces our ancestors sought to connect with. What became organised religion was once a respect for unknown but occasionally encountered forces rather than a belief in a deity.

“Out in the wild, or gazing up at the stars … I do not feel diminished. On the contrary, I feel appropriate, one instance of a particular species with its own way of being in the world”

The second essay looks further at extinctions and how those who act on their concerns come to be branded negatively, often criminalised. Politicians and business leaders focus on the economy, ignoring the wide variety of damage industrialisation causes. The author reminds us that the ‘economic health of entire societies is measured according to the market value of its richest members’. The degradation of land, and the removal of freedoms afforded in wilder spaces, has left people ‘greedy, anxious, less spontaneous’.

Interesting asides include the way nature has recolonised the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, now ‘lush, diverse and swarming with animal, bird and insect life’.

“normal human activities associated with agrarian society are more destructive than the world’s worst nuclear meltdown”

There are further reminders that habitat changes result in displacement, that land should not be viewed primarily as a profitable resource.

“Land ownership inevitably leads, first to the denaturing of place and, second, to the basic conditions for social injustice. If one person has the right to enclose, develop or colonise an area, then others are not only excluded from its use, but also coerced into a position where their relationship to the land quickly becomes distorted.”

The penultimate essay, Auks, includes the always distressing account of how the Great Auk was systematically slaughtered to extinction. This, along with commercial whaling, depicts man at his worst in so many ways. Much is made in historical accounts of holocausts and genocides – man killing man. How we treat our other fellow creatures says much about moral compass – so called humanity.

The final essay tells of the author’s recent near death experience when he caught Covid-19. Once recovered he found himself more attuned to the now, more connected and appreciative. He offers special thanks to the healthcare workers who saved him, noting that a pay rise would be a better way of expressing this than a nation’s halo making.

“Nobody can say that these people are as culpable as the CEOs and politicos who keep the extinction machinery running – they, at least, have chosen to work on the side of life”

Although grateful to be alive, the author accepts his mortality and rejects the entitled assumption that ‘the whole show belongs to us’. He posits that it is this attitude that will drive man towards his own extinction, and that other species will likely blossom and flourish in the ruins we leave behind.

The writing is persuasive with many points of interest raised. Little hope is offered for change given how entrenched man’s self-entitlement remains, the comforts enjoyed that cost so dearly. Nevertheless, those who understand and value nature’s ecosystem will recognise that we are merely one species among many. We know what we are doing and continue, making a mockery of any complaints we may raise at our systematic degradation of what is our life support system.

Never didactic but clear on the issues that deserve unadulterated consideration, this is recommended reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Little Toller.

Guest Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

Today I welcome Valerie O’Riordan to my blog. Valerie is a writer, critic and academic. She lectures in Creative Writing and English at the University of Bolton. Her fiction has appeared in numerous national and international publications, including Tin House, LitMag, The Lonely Crowd, and The Manchester Review. She edits both Bookmunch and the Forge Literary Magazine. It is through my contributions to Bookmunch that we are associated. After I had submitted my review of Things Are Against Us to Bookmunch, I noticed that Val was reading the book. Interested in what she thought of it, I was delighted when she agreed to review it for Never Imitate.

Lucy Ellmann, Things Are Against Us

Things are against us, if by *us* we’re talking women, and anyone who identifies similarly, queer folx more broadly, and that’s not even to mention the issues thrown up for Black and brown and indigenous peoples, and by *things* we mean, oh, the institutional structures of human societies worldwide. In fact, notes Ellmann, when you look at it with a keen eye, ‘the whole human experiment seems to be drawing to a close.’ So what’s to do? Well, while we work busily on a global socialist-feminist uprising, we might as well complain.

Things Are Against Us is complaint writ large. It represents a glorious bellowing back against the Trumps, the Weinsteins, the mansplainers and manspreaders; against penile architecture and commodity fetishism and tech utopians and widespread ignorance; against bras, against travel, against morning routines and stereotypes; against fake news and FGM and femicide; against violence of all sorts. Make no mistake: this is a tirade. Or, tirades, really, because this is a collection of essays, Ellmann’s first work of non-fiction, drawing several previously unpublished pieces together with polemics printed over the last twenty-one years, from ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’ (2000) to ‘Sing the Unelectric’ (2013), to ‘Consider Pistons and Pumps’ (2016) and ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put’ (2017). The recurrent theme is patriarchy and its manifold woes, and the latter essays are sharply focussed on Trump and his administration, still in power when most of these pieces were composed. With the election of what Ellmann calls, variously, ‘this delusional mass murderer’ (gun violence, kids in cages, Covid), ‘the phoniest guy they could find’, and, turning Trump’s own vocabulary against him, ‘the big fat loser of a president’, and the attempted MAGA coup following Biden’s election, America reached ’a whole new level of patriarchal absurdity’. And this book is dedicated, mostly, to a setting out of this
state of affairs: how it came about, how it’s manifesting itself, how screwed we all really are. And it is all of us: while Ellmann’s a steadfast ex-pat (she lives in Scotland), she doesn’t let the UK gets away with anything — Tony Blair is a war criminal and Brexit is, she argues, ‘the apotheosis of age-old British self-hatred’ — and even though America does play its hand especially blatantly, it’s patriarchal capitalism that’s the real enemy, not any particular nation-state. ‘Wildlife is pretty much finished now’, Ellmann says, plainly, and it’s true. So what do we do? Well, complain, for a start: make ourselves heard. Take a stance. Hold out for worldwide matriarchy, suggests Ellmann. Be strong, take the
money, and run. (And take the pill.)

Now, remember, this is Lucy Ellmann, who might well be the living embodiment of barbed wit: this is a funny collection. It’s bold and brash and unafraid to offend, defiantly belligerent, and for every swipe the book takes at unabashedly misogynistic and colonialist and ecocidal world leaders and conventions, it takes another at missing hot water bottle stoppers, blenders and pumpkin spice lattes. It’s a serious book, but a fun one; it’s an easy read, a rapid read, a fist-thumping and grinning read. It’s enjoyable. But that’s also how it gets you: Ellmann lays a trail of funny breadcrumbs, draws you in, and then, bang: we’re reading about the stupefaction of the public by YouTube and Fox News and we are furious. It’s smart and ingenious and demonstrates enormous rhetorical skill – skill that has, often, gone underappreciated in the reaction to her works online. Ellmann rails against so many Things that critics — and, naturally, social media users who, in many cases, haven’t actually read her works — have liked to latch onto isolated examples (her dig at crime fiction; her twitter essay about ‘crap’) as case-studies in why she ought to be ignored. But one of the Things Ellmann rails against is this proliferation of electronic noise: the unconsidered pile-on, the lack of critical thinking encouraged by the exact varieties of patriarchal capitalism that got Trump into the hotseat in the first place. Slow down, she’s saying, step back, shut up and think. We don’t like gobby, unapologetic women, do we? Why is that?

‘I made nice,’ Ellmann says, and ‘it didn’t work.’ So pay attention. Get angry. Be strong: complain.

Valerie O’Riordan

Book Review: Corpsing

corpsing

“What I was looking for at all times was an escape hatch, a way out of the present moment, to tunnel out of my totally unremarkable and pathetic self. To break the cycle of being a terminal disappointment: a disappointment as a daughter, a mother, a woman, failing at that implied contract of womanhood – of being nice and attractive and contained.”

Corpsing, by Sophie White, is taglined My Body and Other Horror Shows – appropriate given its focus on how one’s body cannot always be relied upon. It is a collection of essays that serve as memoir. The raw honesty of the subjects explored is both refreshing and horrifying, laying bare the sheer effort required to exist in a world where quietly keeping up appearances is the expected norm. Issues examined include the impact on self of: drug taking, grief, mental breakdown, motherhood, self harm, alcoholism. The author has both a caring mother and husband, along with three dependant children, but brings to the fore how living in the world must ultimately be coped with – or not – alone.

Divided into five sections, the first contains a series of essays that deal with the death of White’s father – a drawn out decline that finally ended shortly after the birth of her second child. The violence of birth is compared to the shrunken existence of a human body as it fades towards its inevitable end, when those left behind are cast adrift.

“Birth is explosive and volatile; the final moment of life takes this same explosion and detonates it deep inside us.”

The author struggled to cope with her sense of loss. She went through the motions of each day by keeping busy – looking after her children and starting a new job. And by turning to alcohol. Wine helped numb the sharp edges that threatened to cut her to pieces. What she needed was to be seen to be coping, not making a fuss.

From the outside, White’s childhood was not difficult. She was brought up by loving parents in material comfort. Peel back the veneer and there are all too common incidents that she knew needed to be swept under the carpet: older boys acting inappropriately with her four year old body, a friend’s mother’s who suggested a nine year old White eat fewer puddings to fit into a princess dress, being told she was ugly by laughing boys when a teenager. Absorbing, internalising these unremarkable events, as expected by those around her, leaves lasting scars.

Like many young people, the author in her teens experimented with alcohol and drugs.

“a place of refuge where I could take a break from being myself”

Aged twenty-two she took an ecstasy tablet while camping at a festival. The bad reaction suffered changed her forever. She describes it in detail, the start of her ‘madness’. There followed a breakdown, psychiatric help, the slow clawing back from thoughts of suicide. Years of travel, working as a chef or living meagerly off grid, provided ‘a strategy for restoring sanity’. The essays describing this period are terrifying to consider – the risks taken by young people that so many get away with – yet prove evocative and hopeful.

Returning to Ireland and getting married brought into sharp relief the relationship women have with their bodies and appetites.

“If you were born in the latter half of the twentieth century, then you will know that fat is the very worst thing. The worst thing to eat. The worst thing to be.”

This series of essays is wonderful in highlighting the many ridiculous habits so many absorb, and how women police not just their own bodies but those of others – family, friends, even strangers.

Later essays explore further the author’s descent into alcoholism, and how drunk girls are dehumanised.

“She teeters and topples, knees scuffed. She deserves nothing. No justice if she is victimised by an opportunistic predator. Opportunistic – it’s a word that practically commends this tenacious, moment-seizing, go-getting rapist.”

Another disturbing incident at a festival is detailed, but it is the drinking at home that many stressed out mothers may relate most to. The thoughts on motherhood are as honest as anything I have read on the subject – the pain and fatigue but, more than that, the judgement.

“When a man leaves work to attend to his child, it is commended; when a woman leaves work to attend to her child, it is noted.”

And, of course, the harshest judge of all is the mother herself – her inability to be perfect at all times leading to feelings of failure.

In amongst these excellent essays are topics that may be a little more esoteric: vampirism, adult thumb sucking, knitting. As the author approaches the end of the book: she gives birth to a third child, the COVID-19 lockdown is imposed, she suffers another breakdown and is taken into psychiatric care. It is a reminder that mental illness is managed rather than cured.

White has a writing style that is vehement in its desire for unadorned realism yet contains much humour. The macabre is balanced by recognition of how so many choose to live unaware, to turn away from the unpleasant. The conspiracy of silence that mostly surrounds the unpalatable truths of giving birth and mothering are discarded by the author witheringly.

As well as being eminently engaging, somehow this is an enjoyable read despite the blood, gore and madness. It is an eye-opening account of the strength required to hold a life together – a reminder to show compassion however ingrained judgement of others’ outward behaviour has become in an age of picture perfect social media.

Corpsing is published by Tramp Press. My copy was provided gratis by Turnaround UK.

Book Review: Things Are Against Us

things are against us

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“But when do women get to dream? How about allowing us a few whims too once in a while? How about indulging women in the belief that we look okay, or that we’re okay mothers and daughters, or that we have okay things to say or do?”

Lucy Ellmann has strong opinions and is not afraid to say what she thinks. In this collection of fourteen essays she rails against the damage caused by patriarchal systems of governance, especially to the natural world and its less powerful or privileged inhabitants. Her solution to the competitive idiocy inflicted by men is to pass over control of all money to women. Her arguments are caustically persuasive – eruptions of rage and despair at what the males of our species have been allowed to get away with. If this sounds too philippic fear not; the essays are as full of wit as wisdom.

The book opens with the titular essay, an amusing riff on how THINGS make life so much more frustrating and difficult in a plethora of ways readers will recognise.

“Your alarm clock will often disturb a good dream. At other times, its battery will die and you’ll miss an appointment. The milk goes off. A water pipe will whine, or burst, and there’s not a THING you can do about it. No matter how old you are, grapefruit will always spit in your eye. The aim of those THINGS is uncanny.”

Next up are a couple of essays that focus on America, where the author was born and lived until she was a teenager. It will come as no surprise to anyone that she despises Trump and his gun-toting sycophants.

From here there is a natural segue into her arguments against the patriarchy. The sixth essay, ‘A Spell of Patriarchy’, will likely be enjoyed most by those who have watched the many classic films referenced. I have not but could still enjoy the read.

Unlike Ellmann I have never found pleasure in reading Dickens. I have, however, enjoyed some crime fiction. Ellmann really doesn’t rate crime fiction, a view she explains in ‘Ah, Men. Certain readers may take offence at this but, if they can get past what they may feel are attacks on their art or choice of entertainment, the essays herein are cleverly constructed and poke fun at many accepted behaviours.

Whilst I may not agree with all the author’s opinions, I did on the points she makes about descriptions of outward appearances in ‘Third Rate Zeroes’. She ponders how fixated so many are on what someone looks like given this is a ‘minor, accidental, and temporary achievement.’

“How much time in life and in literature has already been wasted on mean, irrelevant, and soon outdated notions of beauty? You know, so what if Cinderella was beautiful and her step-sisters weren’t? Is this really really the key to an understanding of human capacity? Is it fair? Is it even entertaining?”

‘Morning Routine Girls’ explores the disturbing growth of young girls promoting beauty products on their YouTube channels. This follows ‘Bras: A Life Sentence’. Both essays may make female readers question why they have accepted the supposed need for either cosmetic intervention.

Ellmann has a soft spot for the Little House series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, writing of this in ‘The Woman of the House. Although referring to the softening of certain hardships endured for Wilder’s intended young readership, Ellmann doesn’t mention the erasure of Laura’s dead siblings from the story, those who perished at birth or as infants. I shared her enjoyment of these books growing up but not her view that this simpler existence was, ‘Not a bad way to live, on the whole.’

Neither would I now wish to live without electricity as she considers in ‘Sing the Unelectric!‘ I do, however, concur with her views on wastefulness. The lack of longevity of many modern goods and devices is a growing concern now that mechanical operations have been replaced by computer controlled sealed units whose manufacture and disposal is so damaging to the environment. So many points made by Ellmann deserve consideration however much detail may be agreed with.

My favourite essay in the collection is ‘The Lost Art of Staying Put in which the author questions why humans choose to travel for so called pleasure. It is expensive, bad for the planet, and many tourists demand that locals not only speak their language but also provide food and accommodation to match the quality they are used to from home – why leave?

“Travel kills as much knowledge, taste and culture as it purportedly spreads. The compulsion for sameness has an insidious effect: languages, costume, dialects and accents start to die out as soon as the Coke and jeans and T-shirts arrive.”

I enjoyed that the home city focused on was Edinburgh (where Ellmann lives) rather than London or Paris – a refreshing change in literary musings.

For readers who enjoyed Ducks, Newburyport, many of these essays include lists (although also a variety of punctuation). The tenacity of the writing is familiar if more succinct.

Ellmann admits to being a tad glib at times but this approach enables her to get across the points she wishes to make pithily. She despairs of the world men have made and seeks change. Many of her observations and opinions may appear tongue-in-cheek but should not be dismissed as unintended to be taken seriously.

Any Cop?: A much enjoyed read however much may or may not be agreed with. Urgent, angry and often very funny.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Trauma

“The older one gets, the more we’re inclined to try to make sense of where we are and how we got here. Looking back we see these lightning traces, these impossible threads that weave our lives together and give them meaning.”

Trauma is an anthology of thirty-two essays from an impressive roster of contemporary writers who publish in the English language. They share their thoughts on a diverse array of mental health issues caused by, to name just a few examples included: physical, sexual and emotional abuse; drug, alcohol and pornography addiction; illness, including depression; sleep deprivation. The essays are deeply personal and skilfully written. They deal with hard-hitting subjects that demand time for reflection. The traumas suffered have been life-changing in myriad ways.

Jenn Ashworth writes in the introduction that she read the essays during the first lockdown of 2020. She suggests:

“It is hard to imagine a more appropriate time for an anthology like this, when even those of us cushioned from illness, bereavement and financial disaster are learning the hard lessons of impermanence and dependence. Of having the truth of our precarity revealed to us suddenly, harshly and relentlessly.”

The wide variety of subjects explored adds strength to a book that could have been dispiriting but somehow comes across as affirming. The authors live daily with the impact of various mental health issues – theirs or a loved one’s – but write of how they have found ways to recognise the damage caused and – mostly, somehow – push through. There are few treatments or cures suggested. Rather, the stories shared are an acknowledgement of how widespread and lingering trauma is. Brushing it under the carpet – a conspiracy of silence that has long been pervasive – results in longer term misery, sometimes across generations.

With so many fine essays included, I will only highlight those few that resonated particularly with me. All in the anthology are worth reading.

James Miller’s The Madness of the Real focuses on the relentlessness of the news cycle and the ubiquity of smartphone connectivity. He starts with social media – particularly as used by Donald Trump – and its assault on:

“truth, decency, tolerance and democratic values. The world’s biggest troll playing the world’s biggest victim, gaslighting supporters and enemies alike.”

Miller writes succinctly of a world on fire, fuelled by toxic leadership. The anger this engenders alongside the impotence many feel at the vastness of damage wreaked eats into our ability to trust the society in which we must live. He suggests that, in such times, literature can reflect back concerns and offer:

“inspiration, strength and solidarity. Old tools to build new weapons, elixirs to cultivate forbidden dreams.”

Where Miller writes plainly, Anna Vaught employs language richly flavoured in her essay, In Order to Live. A childhood characterised by emotional abuse led her to seek sanctuary in books – an escape ‘to new words and worlds.’ Having battled through years of mental health problems caused by toxic parenting, Vaught then suffered two nervous breakdowns while a young mother herself. She unpicked the origins of her illness by writing her autobiography – a cathartic process that enabled her to confront her family’s psychiatric history. She writes that she still reads at a furious pace, ‘in order to live’.

In Madness As Such, Neil Griffiths provides fragments written during a period shadowed by severe and extended episodes of depression. Although not always easy to read, this peals back the veneer of coping to expose a window into his mind at the time. It is raw and visceral.

“Overwhelm. I’m suffering ‘overwhelm’. (There is no more space left in this emptiness)”

In Quite Collected… Meanwhile… Rowena MacDonald employs a narrative presented in two columns to highlight how inner thoughts are masked to the extent that the bearer appears to be holding together despite help being needed. She escapes to private or anonymous spaces rather than risk being seen to break.

Naomi Frisby describes the damage caused by a toxic relationship in A Recipe for Madness. Believing her new partner to be the man of her dreams, she surrenders job and friends to be with him. On attaining control, he then changes tack, manipulating to ensure Frisby blames herself. In the aftermath, she feels humiliated that she was taken in, not recognising his narcissism.

“I prided myself on being independent, educated, strong, but my response to J pushing me away was to cling harder, to give more and more of myself to him. By doing everything I could think of to try and stop J abandoning me, I abandoned myself.
Finding myself again takes time. I have to learn who I’ve become and why.”

The Fish Bowl or, Some Notes on Everyday Sexual Trauma, by Monique Roffey, lays bare the pervasiveness of sexual abuse amongst adolescents and beyond, so much so that any fuss made is discouraged, damage internalised.

Although focusing on her own experiences, the point is made that men suffer too:

“of always being measured against alpha males, of not being able to reach out to other men, of having few male friends, of lonely marriages and of erectile dysfunction, and of wives and partners who didn’t know what they wanted in bed and didn’t seem to want sex from them”

Tamin Sadikali writes of addiction to pornography – how he grew to loath himself but, for many years, couldn’t look away. Azad Ashim Sharma writes of addiction to alcohol and cocaine. After a year of clean sobriety, he then chose to return to his old ways. These essays are eye-opening. The authors understand how their habits will be regarded but also that they are more common than many may think.

“Waste water analysis shows that 1/50 people use [cocaine] every day in London.
In May 2019, Kings College London and the University of Suffolk collaborated and found that 100 per cent of freshwater shrimp tested positive for traces of cocaine.”

There is no advocacy for greater acceptability but rather acknowledgement of self-inflicted damage and the difficulties caused by a culture of denial and condemnation.

In The Art of Lost Sleep, Venetia Welby writes of the problem of severe insomnia, a problem she has battled since her teenage years.

“people who’ve had a bad night or two, experienced jet lag or stayed up all night partying think the deleterious effects they feel must be the same, just scaled down. But the complete unravelling of body and soul and the identity crisis that real insomnia entails exists in a different dimension.”

As with many of these essays, this is a request for recognition of a serious problem that is too often belittled.

Throughout the anthology the writers present fearlessly articulate descriptions of the causes and effects of their mental health issues. These provide educative yet always engaging insight into widespread problems that deserve sympathetic treatment. It is a candid and illuminating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Dodo Ink.

Book Review: Broken Consort

“There are a lot of serious idiots out there who could do with being a shade less convinced by themselves.”

A good number of the people I follow in the book world have degrees in English or similar. My degree is in Computer Science. Although I achieved A grades in the various English subjects at ‘O’ level (Literature, Language, Use of), I opted not to take English at ‘A’ level. My older sister had been through this and I had seen the books she was required to read. I had no wish to spend two years slogging through Chaucer, Shakespeare and some of the more modern classics published in previous centuries.

As a teenager I was enjoying books by various romance writers, along with output from the likes of Jeffrey Archer and James Clavell. At fourteen, I had given myself a pat on the back for finishing The Lord of the Rings but, truthfully, found the endless journeying tedious. In my twenties I tackled the likes of Homer, Ovid and Plato in an attempt to become better read. I skimmed the surface rather than gaining understanding. I could now enjoy Austin, Hardy and Eliot. I still disliked Dickens.

My appreciation of the more worthy tomes in literature was much like my reaction to the little known films or music my university friends discussed in rapturous terms. I wanted to be a part of their arty circle but, in truth, still preferred instant gratification to clever depth. Looking back I suspect I was tolerated by these, mostly male, friends because some found me attractive – opinions I voiced were of little interest.

Why am I telling you this? What I wish to get across is that I have always read voraciously but do not consider myself well read. Unlike Will Eaves who, in the many book reviews included within Broken Consort, references a plethora of mighty works. His reviews are detailed critiques, written in a style that I could only aspire to. Not having read the books he mentions, I found few hooks to draw me in.

Broken Consort is Eaves’ latest published work and offers exactly what it claims on the back cover.

“a chronicle of close attention (to books, films, plays, paintings, music, notebooks and car-boot sales) which will confound anyone who thinks rigour and generosity are contradictory.”

The entries are mostly presented in the order they were written, from around 1992 to the present day. Several include more personal details – a relocation to Australia, a back injury, mention of relationships. The essays musing on human reactions and other behaviours were the ones I found most interesting.

I engaged more easily with the film reviews than those offering opinion on books or art. This is likely because I am familiar with the Bond series and Titanic. It was entertaining to consider the depths with which these could be viewed.

Please don’t think I drew nothing from the many book reviews included. Being and Doing was fascinating in its discussion of attitudes across centuries to what we now call homosexuality. Laura Riding mentioned the ‘notion of an intellectual oligarchy’ – it seems high minded literati have long held the view that they are better than the hoi polloi, as my university friends were wont to do.

Beginnings is the car-boot sale essay mentioned and I very much enjoyed the author’s observations. In this, he came across as more self-deprecating than in certain later entries.

Situation was written during his time living in Australia and muses on many interesting ideas of home and how we deal with the past, and potential futures.

“I sat down on a bench, on which someone had carved the words ‘You Are Here’ and I realised, a bit late, that the answer to my mid-life jitters was just that.”

The more high brow literary and artistic commentary may have gone over my head but I could still learn from the perceptive writing style. I enjoyed the essays on writing, and on the author’s experiences teaching the subject at university. He notes that some students are eager to have written a book, more than actually writing one. He pokes fun at texts regarded by some as essential. Although at times playful in this way, what comes across is the rigour with which he approaches any subject.

The later essays and articles are, as I mentioned, less generous than the earlier entries. In Trees and Sympathy he offers a glimpse of what appears to be disdain for bloggers.

“If I had a pound for every blogger who demands relatable characters, I could retire.”

In Q&A he offers a view on those who consider themselves writers.

“Writers are presumably people who write. It’s too vague a term to be much use, though people do like to call themselves writers, Don’t they?”

The same interview provides a hint as to why I have enjoyed Will Eaves’ fiction. He is asked if he feels ‘any ethical responsibility as a writer’.

“Lots of books have been written about the social role of the artist, and I don’t wish to misrepresent the complexity of that commentary, because there are many different ways of making an artistic contribution to society. But, as I see it, my ethical responsibility is not to wear uniform.”

The author is published by CB Editions, a tiny press run by Charles Boyle since 2007. I have met Charles on a few occasions, at events attended by authors and publishers of high end literary fiction. He was obviously well regarded and appeared a tad embarrassed by the veneration. His reaction to me came across as bemused – what was I, a book blogger, doing amongst these peers of his? I suspect I was, as in my university days, mixing with those I admired but would never truly belong alongside.

And I doubt I am the target audience for Broken Consort. I can admire the quality of the prose, and enjoy the more personal musings, but my lack of knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman texts too often stymied full appreciation.

This is a fine collection for those of a more intellectual persuasion – those who can appreciate art beyond its superficial aesthetic. I may have moved beyond my desire for instant gratification, but doubt I will ever reach the literary heights of Will Eaves and his ilk.

Broken Consort is published by CB Editions.

Book Review: The Good Immigrant

“good immigrant and bad immigrant, refugee and benefit scrounger. This keeps us in our place, humans bickering, focusing on their differences, distracted, and at each other’s throats, competing and separating”

The Good Immigrant is a collection of essays, edited by Nikesh Shukla, where twenty-one British writers of colour discuss race and immigration in the UK. Many of the entries express anger at how the authors feel they are regarded and treated, especially by the white population. As I consider how to express my thoughts in this review I wonder if I will choose words acceptable to those who suffer the prejudices articulated. Language can be a tricky beast when dealing with contentious issues.

What is not in contention is the discrimination faced by so many descendants of various races and ethnicities. Although not universal, the problems they face are widespread and disturbing. Some of the authors have assimilated more than others yet all have experienced lazy assumptions based on stereotyping. Skin tone and other features, including how they choose to dress, have resulted in career limitations and, at times, threats to safety.

I picked up the collection in the hope of better understanding the immigrant experience, especially as viewed through the eyes of those of the second and third generation who were born and raised in Britain. The anger and frustration they feel at the way they are too often treated is understandable. It is harder to think of answers to some of the questions raised.

The subjects focused on in the essays vary and some are more on point than others. I found a few to be somewhat rambling although raising valid issues. There are attempts at finding humour. There is recognition that differing cultures – of all shades – are not always understood beyond their enclaves.

“I learned quickly that there are certain jokes the white community can’t ever really find funny because the punchline means wading through gasps of horror or sympathy, or worse, lengthy explanations whenever you make a quip about skin lightening, arranged marriage or hate crimes. Learning the comedic levels of rooms is part of the immigrant experience”

Those who travelled from another country to make their homes in Britain did so with a variety of aims. Some came for economic reasons, other to escape life threatening situations. There is talk of gratitude and the need to prove oneself by demonstrating an admirable work ethic. There is disappointment at the realisation that this will not be enough for many.

In certain examples explored, cultures are retained within the home even when beyond there are attempts to assimilate. For some there remains a hankering back to where the wider family originated, a wish to adhere to their traditional expectations.

“We are happy to change and adapt even something so fundamentally important to us as language in order to start sinking into our new homes. In death, though, so far they’ve all returned to the ‘motherland’ and had their ashes spread over the Ganges. There’s a religious element to that of course but, in choosing this way to be laid to rest, it suggests to me that this diaspora, these brave wanderers, always yearned for home no matter how successful they were at integrating abroad.”

In several of the angrier essays there are mentions of the impact of Britain’s historic empire building. This is blamed, amongst other things, for the damaging perpetuation of the Indian caste system. I didn’t understand this particular argument, nor the wish to hold current generations responsible for the actions of their distant forbears.

“you cannot and must not turn a blind eye to injustices that your people are responsible for.”

The lack of visibility in the media along with problems of acceptance of people of colour is blamed on many things including the fictions told of historic racial variety within the British population. It is pointed out that people of African descent stood guard on Hadrian’s Wall.

“America uses its stories to export a myth of itself, just like the UK. The reality of Britain is vibrant multi-culturalism but the myth we export is an all-white world of Lords and Ladies.”

Oppression, discrimination and the increasing violence encountered from white supremacists are all discussed. The hate detailed is distressing to read.

“As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder, it’s taken off you and swapped out for another.”

I did not understand the desire to import cultures that appear to limit individual freedoms and nurture it within families. Surely such perpetuation of difference makes assimilation more difficult?

There were complaints about appropriation – of clothing, music or language. Is the wish to copy not a compliment, a sign of admiration? I guess I have not understand the problem being articulated.

Other essay collections such as Nasty Women and Know Your Place I found empowering, recognising many of the situations explored. Thus I am left with a feeling that I am missing something key from The Good Immigrant.

The final essay is powerful as the author had been through an elite, British education yet still felt rejected by the society he had worked so hard to fit in with. In the end he chose to leave, to make his home in Berlin. If immigrants or their descendants take this option, understandable when considering how too many are being treated, the UK will become a lesser place for those of all shades who remain.

The Good Immigrant is published by Unbound.

I purchased my copy of this book at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath.

Book Review: Constellations

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. There are musings on wider attitudes to ownership and behaviour. The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. As a woman growing up in Ireland she has shouldered a burden of expectation against which she quietly rebels.

Alongside periods of incapacitation, the aloneness of illness, are many joyous moments of freedom and adventure. The author writes of: music, dancing, travel, relationships. There is an underlying generosity in her attitude to the world she inhabits, “making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

She expresses a wish that her children, especially her daughter, may live their lives to the full and not be curtailed by

 “Those who go out of their way to avoid your good news,
who flash facsimile smiles when the world smiles on you,
The people who are too afraid to try to do
what you will one day do.”

The essay titled ‘Hair’ explores society’s attitude to women who choose to grow or shave off their tresses:

“Every time I’ve shaved my head, or sported a suedehead of regrowth, there is always a response, especially from men. They are mostly horrified or bemused; some declared it attractive: but I was always asked to justify myself.”

These unasked for responses to changed looks, or to actions deemed unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, are recounted in many of the essays. Too many people appear to believe that women require guidance, that they cannot be expected to know what is best for them.

In 60,000 Miles of Blood’, the author explores attitudes to this vital liquid when it leaves a host’s body. A soldier shedding their blood in battle is regarded as heroic. A woman’s monthly menstruation is shameful. An artist using blood in their work is berated. There are always opinions on what may be done with one’s own body and its constituents.

“Art is about interpreting our own experience. Upon entering hospitals, or haematology wards, our identity changes. We move from artist or parent or sibling to patient, one of the sick. We hand over the liquid in our veins to have it microscoped and pipetted. Beneš used his art as tenancy. If hospital tubes could house his blood, so could his own work. Beneš knew that if his blood had to be anywhere other than in his veins, he might as well use it as an aesthetic agenda; a declaration of possession.”

Moving on to the subject of parenthood, the author writes of how this has brought with it both joy and pain. As children grow they travel ever further away, carrying their parents’ intense love for them lightly.

There is a thread on feminism running through many of the essays. A woman’s pain is not always taken seriously by medical professionals. A mother is expected to put her children’s needs before her own. ‘Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy’ looks at abortion in Ireland and the 2018 referendum on the issue. It wonders at the mindsets of those who oppose a woman’s right to choose a termination.

“Ireland is scornful of its girl children. The state can and does oppose what a family/a woman/a pregnant person believes is in their best interest. A born girl has no more rights than an unborn foetal one.”

“A writer friend overhears a group of twenty-something men talking on a train. One, full of swagger, says he doesn’t ‘want to give them that’, insinuating that women are uppity and asking for too much wanting to control their bodies.”

‘Second Mother’ tells of a beloved aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s and how the family could only watch as the person they had known and valued faded away, mind before body.

‘Our Mutual Friend’ is a reminder of the precariousness of life and the pain of grief. It is an intensely moving tribute to a young man whose life ended unexpectedly.

The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion. Although important and at times emotive, vital issues are presented with grace.

Any Cop?: Every entry in this collection was a pleasure to read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: All the Devils Are Here

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

I have read several books recently that intertwine the facts, lore and local gossip about a place with an author’s personal interest and experience. The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees explored Hastings; Hollow Shores provided a fictionalised exploration of Kent. All the Devils Are Here is also focused on Kent although the ripples spread further afield – including to London, Europe and the Middle East. The book contains a series of essays that meander around and muse about the licentious and often nefarious escapades of one time residents from such towns as Margate, Rochester, Broadstairs and Deal. The ne’er-do-wells featured are as likely to be from the decadent wealthy classes as from what may be more commonly regarded as the criminal. First published in 2002 the book has recently been rereleased. The essay exploring Fascism seems particularly prescient.

The Prelude sets the scene introducing Kent as the first commercial bathing resort to offer its eighteenth century, genteel visitors from the city clean air and curative sea bathing. By the end of the century the working classes were also descending in large numbers which led William Cowper to remark:

“Margate tho’ full of Company, was generally fill’d with such Company, as People who were Nice in the choice of their Company, were rather fearfull of keeping Company with.”

Certain English, it seems, have long wished to isolate themselves from those they regard as different from them in any way. And worrisome company can exist in the most unassuming of settings – today’s blue plaques will sometimes celebrate this.

Many names feature: T.S Eliot; Charles Dickens; John Buchan; Richard Dadd (an insane but acclaimed artist who murdered his father); Lord Curzon (last Viceroy of India under Queen Victoria, who approved his daughter’s marriage to Sir Oswald Mosley); Arthur Tester (a stage Nazi and father of Audrey Hepburn). There are more – drunks, cranks, chancers and the egoistic – many remembered fondly for the creative work they left. When the artist behaves badly can this discredit the art is, perhaps, a pertinent question.

Within the essays attempts to monetise the famous at the expense of modern tourists are mocked, these sanitised versions compared to the facts gleaned from the author’s research. Each subject has a questionable side which often inspired a following. Many characters are interlinked, and not just by place.

There is domestic discord, grisly murder, sexual abuse of children, decadent lifestyles, and attempts at obfuscation. The final essay explores the world of homosexual pickups, rent boys and the murder of prostitutes. There is little edifying in these expositions but they provide insight into the blinkered thinking of those who believe they can have whatever they wish for, at whatever cost to their victims – and they often get away with it. Families may have tried to sweep such histories under the carpet but our intrepid author hunts his quarry through a detailed bibliography, personal interviews and visits to locations. He brings the reader back to the time and place where the deeds occurred shining his light into dark corners tourist boards may prefer were left hidden.

Any Cop?: The essays wander in directions that can appear random at times, exploring a wide variety of anecdotes and rumours, unpicking speculations. This is an intriguing collection of essays that offers much to mull as they uncover the lesser known activities of many recognisable names. It is sobering to reflect that, when it comes to human activity, little seems to have changed.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Know Your Place

Know Your Place is a collection of twenty-three essays written by working class writers about their experiences of being working class in Britain today. The writers’ families identify with a variety of colours and cultures, which add to the way they are perceived by themselves and others. Most of the writers appear to have attained a university education, and to have moved away from the environment in which they were raised. The essays explore the effort required to push against perceptions, the cost of trying to realise their potential in spaces dominated by those whose background is one of greater privilege.

The collection opens with The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes, in which Abondance Matanda talks of art, accessibility, and who decides what is valued. It argues that the supposed elite of the art world should not assume that the unrepresented are culturally deprived.

“Being a black working class woman, I exist on the peripheries, in the shadows of British society. It’s scarily likely that you might not see me or my experiences portrayed at all, let alone wholesomely in our visual culture or art history.”

The author’s peers do, however, know about art and heritage. The problem, as in many of the issues raised in the following essays, is breaking through the barriers erected by traditional gatekeepers who do not always see a need to facilitate change.

In The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality, Laura Waddell discusses the joy experienced when consuming fatty, salty food, which is accessible where healthier entertainments are beyond limited budgets. Those who can afford to drive to a large supermarket and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables will often shake their heads at the dietary choices of those living in poverty, ignoring the causes. This reaction, to blame the poor for their situation, is a recurring theme.

Several of the authors discuss the positives of growing up working class, which includes the comfort of belonging and a feeling of community. In The Death of a Pub, Dominic Grace recalls a drinking establishment he frequented in south Leeds, where generations of the same families would get together after a hard days graft. It may have been a rough place but these were blokes enjoying friendly banter over a well earned pint at the end of a long day. Unfortunately, to me, it was reminiscent of the attitude of the wealthy to their London Clubs which ban women as this would change member’s freedom to talk and act as they choose. The working man’s pub appeared intimidating to those who did not belong to that socioeconomic group.

Many of the essay authors’ parents worked hard to enable their offspring to progress through education. Those who made it to better schools write of the challenges this brings. Just as work colleagues may not appreciate the difficulties presented by a lack of parental contacts or financial backup, so classmates did not understand why house size and quantity of possessions could cause embarrassment. There are also casual preconceptions, such as the assumption that a package holiday to Benidorm is somehow less admirable than a bespoke journey through a remote corner of Asia.

There are discussions on benefits, sexuality, visibility and the culture of blame. There is a correlation between poverty and mental health as well as the obvious physical effects of poor nutrition. In Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold, Ben Gwalchmai looks at rural poverty and the jobs he took as a child living in Wales. The Housework Issue (The Other One) asks why certain jobs are looked down upon, especially those that provide benefit to many.

“We, working class women, and all of us, have been sold a lie. The fabrication that if we work hard, do the right thing – whatever that means – that we’ll be ok and get the good stuff. We’ll get the status, and a good sense of pride, and if we’re not ok we deserve our poverty; it’s our own fault because we’re not working hard enough.

The inconvenient truth is that a badly paid and low status job with no prospects like cleaning keeps you poor. Hard work does not lift people out of poverty or issue status, not if you scrub toilets for a living anyway.”

In Reclaiming the Vulgar, Kath McKay asks who defines good taste, and who cares. Value judgements have been attached to many things, including how people furnish their homes, dress and speak. This results in sizeable portions of the population being silenced, their voices somehow deemed unworthy. In The Wrong Frequency, Kate Fox explores the judgements made about those who speak with regional accents. Class differences are reinforced by perceived regional stereotypes.

Many of the essays deal with belonging and the disconnects successful social mobility can introduce. In What Colour is a Chameleon, Rym Kechacha discusses the necessity of talking and acting differently in order to gain acceptance.

“I have heard too many people frown when they hear me speak, too many people assume I haven’t read that book they’re talking about […] I know that no one is fooled about my origins, and I don’t even know if I want them to be.”

The final essay, You’re Not Working Class, is by the editor of the collection, Nathan Connelly. In it he asks what the term even means. There are those who try to delegitimise others who identify as working class. They are thereby complicit in attempting to silence someone who does not conform to their expectations.

To be better understood it is necessary to be heard and these essays provide a platform from which marginalised writers may speak for themselves. From the quality of the arguments presented it is clear that they are more than capable of elucidating cogent and balanced opinions. The stories they tell provide a lesson a wider audience would undoubtedly benefit from learning. This is a recommended read.